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Many Fail Exit Exam As Graduation Nears

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 02, 2006

Graduation season is fast approaching, but more than 40,000 students statewide, including about 200 in Berkeley, still have not passed the high school exit exam.  

The California Department of Education released results from the March administration of the exit exam Thursday. Statewide, 41,758 students have not passed the test, meaning they will not know until well after graduation ceremonies are complete whether they will receive diplomas, since results from a May administration of the exam won’t be announced until July. 

About 200 Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) students have not passed the exam, said district spokesperson Mark Coplan. A smaller number are at risk of not earning diplomas this month, because the figure includes special education students who are exempt from the test mandate this year. 

The other students, who have met all graduation requirements but have not passed the exit exam, are eligible to walk the stage with their peers, per a decision by the Berkeley Board of Education in February. They will not, however, receive diplomas.  

This is the first year students must pass the exam to receive high school diplomas. The test assesses 6th- to 8th-grade math and 9th- to 10th-grade English, academic skills proponents say are key to success in life.  

“Maintaining this exam is critical to holding California schools accountable,” said State Superintendent Jack O’Connell in a May 30 press release. “Without these essential skills in English and math, [students] will face a very tough road ahead.” 

Critics of the test complain it unfairly discriminates against low-income and minority students, particularly English language learners who have difficulty with the English portion of the exam. Statewide, about 79 percent of English learners have passed the English language arts section compared with 94 percent of all students.  

In the English learners’ department at Berkeley High School, the March test netted five students who passed and 11 students who did not. Of those 11, about seven meet all other graduation requirements. The students have been in the United States for five years or less. 

Pedro Borges is among the few who passed. A native of Brazil, he’s lived in the United States for a year and a half. He failed the English portion of the exam the last time he tested, but worked arduously with his English language development teacher and took special seventh period exit exam classes. The hard work paid off--but the same isn’t true for some of his friends. 

“I have some friends who still haven’t passed the test,” he said. “They’re feeling really bad.” 

Madeleine Scott, a counselor for English language learners at Berkeley High School, said one of her students was accepted to Cal State East Bay, but did not pass the exam, and must now tell the school he cannot attend.  

“It’s a really difficult situation,” she said of all the students she knows who haven’t passed. “They are struggling with having been in high school and having completed all their requirements, and now not being able to graduate and receive a diploma.” 

A lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of students who claim the test is unfair for low-income and minority students nearly uprooted the exam requirement. In early May, an Alameda Superior Court judge granted an injunction against the test. The California Supreme Court later countermanded that decision. The case is scheduled to go to the state Court of Appeal later this summer. 

Students who have not passed the test can take it again in July and still earn a high school diploma. Summer classes, adult education courses and independent study programs are available to help students prepare for the exam.